This essay will look at the research question, ‘How do Miriam Schapiro and Martha Rosler address gender stereotypes through the use of collage in their works?’ These feminist artists use collage as a technique, to address gender stereotypes faced by women, in their artworks.
According to feminist art critique Linda Nochlin, Collage is a technique that challenges the much-praised purity of High Art and carries the most ordinary elements from the real world into the fictive world of representation (Sider, Sandra, 2005). Collage is considered as a technique that mainly uses cut-and-paste to form an assemblage using various materials and elements (Merriam-Webster). This technique is used by artists such as Miriam Schapiro and Martha Rosler, to portray various issues on gender stereotypes faced by women. Schapiro has been experimenting with collage, using materials such as quilts and images since 1971, to portray her ideas from a woman’s point of view. While Rosler uses photo-collage and photo-text to contrast the domestic lives of women during war times, with the most common being the Vietnam War (Moffat, Charles).
1.2 Gender Stereotypes
Gender stereotypes overgeneralise characteristics and differences of a certain gender group. It would then lead to widely accepted judgement or biases towards that said group, creating unequal or unfair treatment towards them (No Bullying, 2016). In this essay, I will be analysing the gender stereotypes placed on women in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and how they are represented through artworks and in art history, in particular, Miriam Schapiro and Martha Rosler.
In order to understand Rosler’s and Schapiro’s artworks’ portrayal of gender stereotypes, it is important to understand and know the feminist movement and the gender stereotypes faced by women at that time.
2. Historical Context
2.1 Feminist Movement and World Wars in America
In the 19th century, most women had to remain within the private and domestic spheres, while men could move in the public sphere and work to support the family as the head of the household. Gender equality was made possible in America because of the various milestones it faced such as, World Wars One and Two which took place in the 20th century (McEuen, Melissa A., 2017). Both the wars allowed women to understand their plight in society, which would then spark the various waves of the feminist movement in America.
2.1.1 World War One
Before World War One, women were fighting for suffrage and political equality, mainly voting rights. The feminist movement was established around the middle or upper-class women. The reason was that they realised that in order to bring change within their society, women should first gain political power (Progressive Women’s Leadership, 2015). The first wave of feminist movement began in 1848 until early 20th century.
When World War One took place from 1914 to 1918 (History.com Staff, 2009), “large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war” (Bryant, Joyce, 2009). The situation at that point made it necessary for women to do the men’s jobs in factories and offices. At least three million women were recruited to take over the men’s role in jobs and even helped out during the wars as doctors, nurses, cooks and caretakers (Bryant, Joyce, 2009). To thank the women for their help in the war efforts, the United States signed the 19th Amendment in 1920, which was to legalise women’s right to vote. With this Amendment, it was known that the first wave also came to an end (History.com Staff, 2010).
2.1.2 World War Two
During the World War Two, millions of men had to go to the war and fight the battle. During this period, there were a lot of vacancies in the factories which needed workers to produce war-related goods. It is here, that women played a vital role in the production of war-related ammunition such as rifles, warships and aeroplanes. In the past, such job positions would have been strictly for men only. To fill up these vacancies, nearly six million women signed up to do the jobs and half of these women helped out with the armed forces. By the mid-1940s, the percentage of women in the workforce had expanded from 25% to 36% (History.com staff, 2010).
Once the war ended, the men went back to being the breadwinners of the house and many women lost their jobs that they previously held during the war. The babies who were born were mostly raised by women who had experienced the independence during the war period. These babies would be the ones who would participate in the second wave of the feminist movement.
The second wave of feminist movement kicked off “with the oral contraceptive pill made available in 1961” which gave women the liberation to live life the way they wanted (Feministactivist, 2011). The second wave marked the peak of the feminist movement and the emergence of the feminist art movement in the late 1960s.
2.2 The Feminist Art Movement
The feminist artists sought to rewrite art history that was male-dominated by focusing on redefining what is Art, and everyday social interactions between men and women within the private and public spheres. According to artist Suzanne Lacy, feminist art was to “influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes” within society (The Art Story Contributors, 2018).
Around 1970, women from both North America and Great Britain had gathered to protest their exclusion from male-dominated exhibitions and institutions. It was pointed out that “only one percent of work on display at the museum was by women” (Whitney Chadwick, 2012). Throughout the United States, women were questioning as to where they could exhibit their work, alongside political, theoretical and aesthetic issues. This included artists who used collage to portray feminist issues such as women in the domestic sphere and women artists who were under recognised in art history.
The emergence of the feminist art practice was closely linked to Miriam Schapiro, whose works I will be examining. In her first work titled Mary Cassatt and Me I will be looking at, Schapiro used and appropriated past female artist Mary Cassatt’s artwork as a metaphorical description, to examine the role they played in art history and the women’s suffrage movement which is also known as the feminist movement. To analyse Schapiro’s work, I will investigate Mary Cassatt’s background and artwork, titled The Child’s Bath, which Schapiro appropriated. The second work I will be looking at, is an installation in a rundown house that involved twenty-eight female artists, and I will be examining one of the works titled Dollhouse in the installation by Schapiro.
Another feminist artist I will be analysing is Martha Rosler, who critiques America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the gender stereotypes faced by women through the series, House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home. From the series I will be looking at two works titled, Cleaning the Drapes and Red Stripe Kitchen. I will examine how successful Rosler was in portraying gender stereotypes through her use of collage in her artworks.
3. Miriam Schapiro – Background
Schapiro was born in Toronto, Canada in 1923, to Russian Jewish parents of a patriarchal family. When Schapiro was born, her father was an artist studying at Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, New York. Her mother was a homemaker and greatly encouraged Schapiro to have a career in the arts (Greenberger, Alex, 2015). At the age of six Schapiro began drawing, and at fourteen, she studied life drawing at a local high school conducted by the Works Progress Administration (Sanford, Christy Sheffield and Enid Shomer, 1986). Some of her knowledge in structuring and composing came at an early age to her very naturally and became part of her artistic style.
In 1971, Schapiro co-founded the Feminist Art program with Judy Chicago, at the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, California, and created an artwork Womanhouse. And it was here, that she became one of the important feminist artists, to produce significant works such as Mary Cassatt and Me and Dollhouse. Through the works she has created throughout her life as an artist, Schapiro has dealt with what she has “identified as the most profound conflict in her life—the struggle to become and be recognised as an artist”.
In order to understand the stereotypes present in the artwork Mary Cassatt and Me, one has to learn the artworks done by Cassatt and the situation she was in, when she created the artwork, The Child’s Bath.
3.1.1 Mary Cassatt – The Child’s Bath, 1893
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born to a wealthy businessman in 1844, Pennsylvania, America, where she spent her early childhood. When she enrolled in Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, “she found the male faculty and her fellow students to be patronising and resentful of her attendance” (biography.com, 2014). Her family strongly objected Cassatt’s choice to study abroad and live an unconventional life. Cassatt was an independent twenty-two year old when she arrived in Paris in 1866. When she arrived there, she painted in numerous Parisian academies and free studios.
Her artistic freedom was extinguished when she did not have enough funds to continue as her father did not want to support her. She tried to raise funds for herself through her artworks and her artistic career continued when she was commissioned to copy two of Italian Master Correggio’s works in Europe. From then on she continued to study and paint in Europe and permanently stayed in Paris (biography.com, 2014).
Among impressionists, she was considered strange, as she chose to focus on everyday subject matter in domestic settings, especially women and children. She was the only American who was part of the French Impressionist Movement in art, during the productive years (Lewis, Jone Johnson, 2017). Her portraits were unconventional in her time as they were direct and honest in nature.
She sponsored fellow Impressionists and encouraged wealthy artists to purchase artworks with the stipulation that the artworks will be eventually passed on to American Art Museum. Cassatt supported the women’s suffrage movement, both morally and financially (Lewis, Jone Johnson, 2017).
In one of her works, The Child’s Bath (Figure 2), was used in Miriam Schapiro’s work Mary Cassatt and Me (Figure 3). In this painting, Cassatt captures a scene of a woman washing a child’s foot in a bowl of water. The child sits on the woman’s lap, with their faces placed very close to each other, portraying great intimacy between them. Cassatt uses earthy and neutral colours such as green, brown and beige, with a balance of cool and warm tones in the work. The elevated vanish point allows the viewer to observe but not participate in this scene (The Art Institute of Chicago, 2013).
The woman in this work is bathing a child which is naturally associated as a domestic activity for women to engage in, as it is part of their duty to care for their child. Here, we should also note that at that point of time, contemporary female artists portrayed the life of middle-class women and the relationship of the mother and child often in their works (Weidemann, Christiane, 2008). Cassatt often staged the scene and depicted children with a woman figure nurturing and caring for them in her work which reflect the ideas of women’s role of her time.
3.1.2 Miriam Schapiro – Mary Cassatt and Me, 1976
One of Cassatt’s works, The Child’s Bath, was used in Miriam Schapiro’s work Mary Cassatt and Me. By examining this work titled Mary Cassatt and Me which is part of a series by Schapiro, one can identify the gender stereotypes she wanted to bring out in the collage work through her appropriation of women artists from the past. Schapiro metaphorically collaborated with Cassatt in this artwork. She alludes to Cassatt as being under represented in art history, as someone who fought for women’s rights during her time. In her work with past artists such as Cassatt, Schapiro places Cassatt’s artwork, The Child’s Bath in the center of focus in her work, Mary Cassatt and Me (1976).
So where is collage used in this decorative fabric collage? The image of Cassatt’s artwork, fabric frame, and the image of a man in a triangle are part of the important collage pieces used in the artwork. These collage pieces appear in a narrative sequence, narrating the gender stereotypes faced by women in the art scene.
In order for a work to be considered as collage and as feminism art, at least half of the criteria should be met according to Schapiro and her students (Art and Feminism, Helena Reckitt):
1. It is a work by women.
2. The activities of saving and collecting are important ingredients.
3. Scrapes are essential to the process and are recycled in the work.
4. The theme has a women-life context.
5. The work has elements of covert imagery.
6. The theme of the work addresses itself to an audience intimates.
7. It celebrates a private or a public event.
8. A diarist’s point of view if reflected in the work.
9. There is drawing and/or handwriting sewn in the work.
10. It contains silhouetted images which are fixed on other material.
11. Recognisable images appear in narrative sequence.
12. Abstract forms create a pattern.
13. The work contains photographs or other printed matter.
14. The work has a functional as well as an aesthetic life.
The collage items appropriated in this artwork and triangle are set in the foreground with a symmetrical green and red pattern as the background of the canvas. To bring Cassatt’s artwork into focus, the surrounding area of the collage image is painted black. Schapiro finishes her appropriation by framing the work with small rectangular quilts stitched together to form the frame, which is also part of the overall collage used in Schapiro’s work. Quilting is an activity widely done by women in their domestic spaces in the 20th century.
Women’s traditional art forms in the 1960s was considered to be the mediums fibre and fabric, including the practices of sewing, quilting, weaving, needlework and crochet (The New York Times, 2008). These mediums and practices are strongly associated with female domestic spaces and activities.
Through this work not only does she want to acknowledge past women artists, but she also wants to reinvent pattern and decoration as part of High Art, and to give recognition to women’s traditional art which they have been creating for centuries. The artists who were involved in the pattern and decoration movement, had exposure to the 1960s feminist movement. They used patterns, pictures and fabrics from quilts, wallpapers and printed fabric in their artworks (The New York Times, 2008). Fabric was considered as part of women’s traditional art form in the 1960s. It also included the practices of sewing, quilting, weaving, needlework and crochet. These quilts were collected and recycled by Schapiro for her work as fabric contribution from women. However for men, pattern and decoration was not considered part of High Art, but as women’s domestic work. In the past, anything that needed a superb sense of colour and design were done by women, and therefore in the patriarchal society there has always been the fixed criticism that such art, which is “concerned with the design and decoration of the objects that are chiefly prized for their utility, rather than for their purely aesthetic quality” is called decorative art (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2013). It was not considered part of High Art which, was mainly done by men.
Cassatt created her work The Child’s Bath in France as she did not have much of an opportunity to pursue an arts career in America as she was a woman. Her family was strongly against it as she did not follow the conventional life of women to do the household chores and care for the family. Cassatt could have been an inspirational female artist for Schapiro, as Cassatt supported the women’s suffrage movement, both morally and financially (Lewis, Jone Johnson, 2017). Therefore, one can deduce that Schapiro could have created this work as a tribute to Cassatt and the women artists who were under represented in the patriarchal society.
Collage as a technique challenged the much praised High Art. When Schapiro chose to use decorative art and quilts created by women in her art and juxtaposed it with Cassatt’s work, she has chosen these collage materials to challenge the gender stereotypes. In this work the collage materials she chose in her artwork definitely brought out the gender stereotypes of her time. She has chosen the very materials and methodology that was dismissed as decorative arts and craft to send out her intention. Using the quilts to form the frame of her work further emphasised how women’s work were restricted due to the domestic sphere of women who lived in America.
3.2 Miriam Schapiro – Dollhouse, 1972
Dollhouse, most commonly known as a child’s play toy mostly for the girls, reinforces the gender stereotypes women have to follow, from a very young age.
Here I will look at another of Schapiro’s work Dollhouse, also a joint-collaboration with her fellow artists as part of a exhibition in Womanhouse, to analyse the gender stereotypes faced by women in society.
Artists: Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody
Medium: Wood, Mixed Media
Size: (213.6 x 101.6 x 22.86) cm
When Dollhouse is presented in a Hollywood mansion, it becomes a house within a house, and rooms within rooms in the exhibition space itself.
Dollhouse reveals six rooms when six separate doors are opened. It is made out of materials and objects collected from women across America and collaged together to portray the domestic spheres of women in America. On the highest level, the left room is a nursery followed by the right being an artist studio. In the middle level on the left, is a Hollywood star’s room followed by the right being a harem. On the lowest level, the left room is the living room while the right is the kitchen.
A key object that was used in this collage to portray the gender stereotypes was the figure of a man which is placed in the art studio. “According to the catalogue, the artists who made the figure were influenced by Linda Nochlin’s photograph of a nude man holding a tray of bananas with which she parodied paintings and photographs from the nineteenth century that associated women’s breasts with apples.” (“Dollhouse.” Woman’s Art Journal, no. 2, 2006). His presence in the studio can be compared to the many nude women models depicted in artworks since the Renaissance. However, one notes that since the artist is absent in the studio one cannot look at the man as simply the model. Furthermore the model is not sexualised and vulnerable, but instead has an upright posture and presence within the space. Being situated at the top right hand corner of the house, one can interpret that he spreads his domineering presence throughout as though he is overlooking the space below. If the space had been meant to be especially for the female, the choice of artwork on the easel in the same room would have been one of Schapiro’s feminist works instead of a miniature version of Schapiro’s Sixteen Windows (1965) was another independent artwork created by Schapiro to reference the pre-dominant artistic style of the male controlled art-world.
The remaining rooms present in the household are spaces meant for the women to care for the family and entertain her husband, with no rooms meant to be used as a personal space for the women solely.
Through the above scrutiny, one can deduce that the carefully selected materials which are put together to form a collage, emphasises the stereotypes faced by women and the situation they were placed in, in America. With close analysis of the collage images used as part of the Dollhouse, one can find the typical gender stereotypes that women were expected to follow such as roles of caring for the children, cooking for the family, and providing sexual pleasure for the man. Throughout the house it is hard to find any links to woman’s individuality within the domestic sphere.
I think Schapiro’s collaboration with other artists is successful in showing the gender stereotypes faced by women at that time through the use of collage in the work. The collage of images and materials put together by the artists forms a narrative which highlights the plight faced by women in a patriarchal society.
4. Martha Rosler – Background
Rosler was raised in a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Her family’s religious background made her aware of the human rights and social justice issues and increased her sensitivity to current and social issues politics at a very young age. Because of her environment during her upbringing, the horror of the Vietnam War instigated her activism, and the influences of her feminist ideas, the series I will be looking at, shows the feminist’s commentary of the Vietnam War.
Martha Rosler uses her work to develop a critical reflection on the functioning of society and the inner tensions of the public sphere (Stephen Wright, 2000). She explores spaces between the private and public spheres and the everyday life and art world. Her work is most often considered as part of the first generation of feminist artists as she began her career in the late 1960s. She works with various media ranging from photomontage, sculpture and performative installation to film and video.
In this series, House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, it coincided with the United States military’s involvement with Southeast Asia. In this series she juxtaposed and collaged images from the war-torn countries with idealised images of female subjects from media and advertisements.
4.1 Cleaning the Drapes (Series: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home), (1967-1972)
In this work titled, Cleaning the Drapes, Rosler uses pictures published in Life Magazine to juxtapose and collage the images in her work as a form of photomontage. Rosler portrayed the literal description of the war in the living room. It is a literal “bringing the message home”. As the War was going on in Vietnam, it was filtered into peaceful American homes through television news and reports. Through the photomontages, Rosler wants to reveal the extent to which a collective experience of the war is shaped by the media. The horrors and atrocities of the war is a stark contrast to the false sense of peace and security in the comforts of American homes.
In this work Rosler wanted to contrast the Vietnam War with the private, domestic space of a American home. Her choice of images to represent the private sphere, emphasises the traditional roles of women to take care of their family and do the household chores. This reinforces the gender stereotypes present in American homes at that time.
Placing the two men in the image center of the scene in war-torn Vietnam, brings focus to the traditional beliefs that men were the ones to fight in the war, and defend the countries in times of need. This places the men outside of the private sphere into the public sphere where they have to fight for others.
4.2 Red Stripe Kitchen (Series: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home), (1967-1972)
In this work titled, Red Stripe Kitchen, Rosler collages two Galvanised Iron (GI) men within a domestic space of a kitchen. They are “rooting through an up-to-the-minute designer kitchen colour-coordinated in blood red” (The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2002). Rosler wants to show that the media can no longer censor the violence from American homes, exposing them to the reality of their surroundings.
In this work, there are gender stereotypes present in the images that Rosler chose to use in the collage work. Even though there are no women present in this work, the kitchen in American homes during the war time was often spaces meant for the women. When Rosler juxtaposes two GIs in the collage closely inspecting the kitchen, it seems to also hint that the men were also keeping a close watch on the domestic spaces. Just like how they might have been searching for hidden mines in battlefields, the two soldiers searching the kitchen also suggests the kitchen as a battlefield. The saturated red of the red utensils and fruits further reinforces the kitchen as a battlefield because of the blood colour utensils present. The quiet chaos and battles is ironically fought out within the domestic spaces of a home.
In both artworks Rosler is successful in bringing out the gender stereotypes in the work through the use of photomontage, a form of collage by juxtaposing images together. Her carefully selected images from the magazine allows her to form a narrative through collage which narrates to us the gender stereotypes of the American society.
Collage as a technique is used successfully by Miriam Schapiro and Martha Rosler to portray gender stereotypes in their social context. For Schapiro, she uses collage to bring focus and give recognition to past women artists such as Cassatt, who were under-represented in art history, through her work, Mary Cassatt and Me. In her second work, Dollhouse, she uses the spaces within a domestic space, and places it in a abandoned house close to demolition, creates many layers to the work and discover the issues of gender stereotypes.
For Rosler, her series of works, House Beautiful: Bringing Home the War, she juxtaposes images of the war with the domestic space, to show how the war has entered the peaceful lives of the American homes. Since Rosler was greatly influenced by feminist art during the Vietnam war that time, her images show the viewer, through the domestic spaces that America is still a relatively patriarchal society. Through their carefully selected collage materials, both artists are successful in portraying gender stereotypes faced by women to the viewers.
6. List of Images:
Figure 1: http://imgarcade.com/mary-cassatt-self-portrait-1878.html
Figure 2: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-cassatt-mary.htm
Figure 3: https://www.wikiart.org/en/miriam-schapiro/mary-cassatt-and-me-1976
Figure 4: https://www.wikiart.org/en/miriam-schapiro/dollhouse-1972
Figure 5: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/150123
Figure 6: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/150129
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